Type A Problems

One of the best things that I do for myself is take notes.

Okay, this might seem self-explanatory, but frequent and persistent application of the basics can really get you through research’s tough problems.

Of course I take notes when I’m reading. How can you read something that you hope to retain and not take notes? In fact, I often read things so quickly that I will forget I have read them unless my notes are copious, well-organized, and well-labeled. Since the dissertation is… you know… a BIG GIANT RESEARCH PROJECT REQUIRING A LOT OF RESEARCH, I’ve extended this one step further.

I’ve started taking notes on my notes.

Yup, that’s right, I’ve gone one more giant leap down the type-A rabbit hole. In science, being able to reproduce your results is extremely important. As such, scientists copiously document (and even publish) their research processes. This is one thing that I think we in the humanities can attempt to duplicate. The research process needs to be something that you can map, at least for yourself. I need to know where I have been in order to sustain where I am going and not just trace and re-trace the same old habitrails day in and day out.

So I started a research journal. I have started to record which databases I query on a given day, the search terms I use, and hyperlink any findings. I note what was useful, what perhaps was less so, and any special considerations I will have to make in the future. At the end of the day, I leave myself ideas about where I want to go next. This makes re-immersing in deep research much easier; I no longer have to spend time looking for my train of thought because it’s right there on paper. In the long run, I feel that this will also prevent gigantic duplications in effort. “I forget, did I check this particular obscure thing? Oh well, better check it again just to be sure.” In essence, I am mapping for myself the territory that I trod in an effort to help myself remember exactly what’s going into this giant project.

In other news, I leave for New York in six days and counting. This time next week, I will have already had my first series of meeting in my five-week journey to enlightenment.

I’m still trying to figure out what to pack, but at least 95% of my archive appointments are taken care of….

Into the Fire… Kinda

So the verdict? I’m a beast and I love challenging physical obstacles (especially amongst supportive and lovely people). The Spartan Sprint was an incredible experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. In fact, I’m now looking into longer races, other 5Ks, and thinking about how far I really want to go with this. I’m reasonably sure that a full marathon is too much for me, but there may be a half in my future. Way in my future. Like a few years in my future. I’m all registered to go for the Zombie Run Black Ops in Boston this year (nighttime 5K/obstacle course complete with zombies who try to eat you), and I’ll be on the prowl for some fun-looking 10Ks in my near future.

I’ve been an avid user of the Zombies, Run! App and 5K trainer (which helped get me into shape for Spartan). It’s a great way to keep yourself engaged and occupied while you’re out for a run. I had tried C25K programs before and all of them lacked a bit of zazzle for me; but this one is just the right combination of stuff to do and encouragement. And, really, who doesn’t like outrunning zombies?

So now that I’ve hurtled the obstacles of June, it’s time to go into deep preparation mode for my research trip. This is particularly difficult when I’m trying to keep my library checkouts at a minimum (since I’ve moved further away from campus than I used to be, and most check-outs would come due while I’m away, it just seems like a good idea to try and go fully digital or from-my-own library until my return from New York).

apparently kissing at the finish line is a Spartan tradition.

apparently kissing at the finish line is a Spartan tradition; we were happy to oblige!

When I have library books, I am able to keep a very real and tangible grasp of my workload. Since I can physically manipulate stacks of books to represent what I am doing, have done, and will do soon, I can create a great set of cues for myself and my kinesthetic learner ways. I’ve managed to come up with systems involving the physical manipulation of books that keep me engaged with my research, and from feeling like I’m lost or don’t know what to do next (or even what needs to be done). Since the move, I’ve been completely disoriented from this method as well as from my usual work patterns. My office situation is completely changed. My desk set-up is completely different. My books aren’t even rearranged so that I can find things if I need them (at the moment, that’s not as big of a deal as it might seem since I’m trying to go digital for 90% of the work I need to do in the short-term).

So it’s a new challenge to figure out how to work in a way that doesn’t involve my book-stacks. Hopefully, it’s one that I’ll resolve before I leave for New York…

Just keep plugging; happy Monday!

White Lies

As the weather gets nicer, it’s becoming more and more difficult to focus on the work I need to do rather than go outside and play all the time. This means that my running has definitely gotten some attention, but that I’ve had to get clever with how I get myself to my desk in the morning.

I was once given the advice that, whenever you’re feeling down about your work (and hey, it happens!), you should “eat dessert first”. Find what it is about the topic, the job, whatever it is you’re doing that drew you there in the first place. Some of what we do as academics is administrative red tape rigmarole, some of it is downright unpleasant, but there’s always going to be that shining kernel of things you love.

This week, it’s been about using that kernel to trick myself to my desk.

Due to the generosity of my home institution, I’ve been given the gift of research this summer. I’m enabled and empowered to visit New York for a full month to do dissertation research (which is vital because, you know, my dissertation is kind of all about New York). I’m so EXTREMELY excited for my trip for so many reasons (not the least of which being all the food from home that I miss so much up here in Boston). This means that I have to take some time before my trip to figure out what I’m actually going to look at at each of the various archives that I will be visiting.

Here's a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago.  For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Here’s a picture of a T-Rex that I found in a bar a couple weeks ago. For no reason really just that I had nothing else to put here.

Which basically means online shopping. I’ve spent no small amount of time this week (and will spend some more in weeks to come) browsing the catalogues of my target institutions for items that might have information which would help my project. Essentially, I get to sift through the holdings of these CRAZY LARGE PLACES in order to try and determine what small subset will be worth my while to look at.

This process is more complicated than you might think. The trouble is that library science, while certainly further along than it was when my grandparents were working on their dissertations (while I have used a card catalogue, it’s thankfully only a small subset of a specific corner of my research which requires such medieval measures), is still an imperfect science. But it’s not the field’s fault really; I mean how do you accurately catalogue boxes upon boxes of material in a way that is intuitive to the general researcher? Generally, the answer involves a complex series of sub-headings, and documents known as “finding aids” (slightly more detailed descriptions of what’s in a box than the collection’s title, but when I say “slightly” I often mean just that… most finding aids that come across my desk are one-line descriptions of date, persons involved (if it’s a letter then usually it’ll be the to/from), and maybe some brief description of places involved). These “finding aids” can be quite old and are generally in PDF form (and not even OCR PDF) which means that, rather than use a computer to look for the word/words you might need to key you in to items on this twelve-page list which might be useful, you have to sift through them using your own two eyes.

If this sounds like a special breed of torture, then you’re not entirely wrong. After about hour five of this, I tend to be too tired to continue without fear of missing something important. But the cool part is that you get little bursts of inspiration/encouragement along the way. Remember, you’re looking through these lists to find something related to your research. That means that the gems you find here will be the things that are the backbone of your project; one document could change the way we look at history! Every time I find something in one of these aids that might be useful to me, I get (at least a little bit) excited. What I’m looking at now will, when it’s in front of me, help to formulate the big ideas that I’m currently wrestling with and provide the documentation to support my arguments.

Also, handling stuff that’s easily five times your age never gets old.

So that’s been my method of tricking myself into productivity this week. Let’s see how long it holds up!

Slowing it Down

Being busy is a really weird thing, and the busier you are the weirder it gets.

I’ve been so busy for so long that since the semester is winding down and I’m no longer running at a break-neck pace, I’m feeling like I am not doing enough. I know, right? Because working three jobs (instead of seven) while writing a dissertation, blogging, and having a social life is TOTALLY not enough and I’m definitely a slacker.

In moments like this, I contemplate starting another project. Then I contemplate why it is that I’m so intent on dying young due to stress-related heart complications.

There’s a huge sense of guilt which comes with being essentially self-employed. Some things will test the boundaries of what you thought you could do. Studying for my comprehensive exam last summer, for instance, was one such task. I learned exactly how many books I could read in a day and still retain the proffered information. After that, even when comps were over, if I wasn’t reading five to eight books in a single day and watching two documentaries as a cool-down, then clearly I wasn’t working at full capacity.

It’s the same with the end of the semester. I get up every morning at 8 and drag myself to my desk after making a cup of coffee. There, I stay (unless I have to teach during the day) until at least 7:00 PM. At that point, I often leave the house to fight direct or review a show. And on days when I don’t do that (and I’m not taking a rare social break), I have been known to work until 9:00 or 10:00 at night because there are things that just have to be done. Essentially, I’m used to twelve hour plus days (I think my record is something crazy like sixteen hours, but on a typical week I average more like thirteen). I’m used to every single moment of my time being filled with some work-related thing of one variety or another.

So when it’s not, I feel like I might be doing something wrong. Like I’m not doing enough. Never mind that “normal” people work eight hour days and maybe burning the candle at

rare glamour shot; public library on my day off last weekend

rare glamour shot; public library on my day off last weekend

both ends isn’t the most sustainable work habit. It takes me a while to acclimate to a “normal” workload because I’m always so busy. When I drop by my desk time to a “regular” schedule, I feel like I don’t get as much done as I should.

I’m led to believe that this is a common thing in academia. It stems mostly from the fact that our projects are almost never completed (and when they are, never all at the same time). We can always always be working on something. There will indefinitely be another draft to write, another book to read, or another set of research to plow through. So when there’s work to be done and time in your schedule, why aren’t you working?

Part of it also stems from the constant drive to produce. With the job market being the way it is, there’s always a need to do more faster than the person behind, in front, or next to you. That one extra published article on your CV might make a different somewhere to someone at some time (especially at the early stages of your career).

Yet another part of it stems from the perfectionist tendencies which produce viable academics. Let’s face it; you don’t go for a PhD unless you’re incredibly driven to succeed and have a track record of near-perfection. If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re used to being amongst the “smartest” people in the room no matter where you stood.* Now, you’re in a department full of people like you. That’s a really tough situation to be in and can result in no small amount of struggle. When the cream floats to the top,** some of that cream is inevitably going to feel like milk again. Or, to put it as my mother says it, “not every doctor graduates top of the class”. You worked hard to get here, now you have to work twice as hard to stay where you’re used to being: at the top.

So the semester slow-down, while a perfectly healthy form of work curbing, doesn’t always feel right. I try to remind myself that it’s okay to average out those long days with a couple of “short” ones, but that only goes so far.

So I’ll be here trying my hardest to sit on my hands at 5:00 if anyone needs me. I can’t guarantee success, but I can certainly at least try!

 

*I put “smartest” in quotation marks because I want to differentiate a socially-accepted view of book smart from street wise, kinesthetic smarts, or emotional maturity that can make a brilliant person feel overlooked in a conventional classroom setting. Books and grades aren’t a sure-fire way to measure intelligence.

**Again, not sure this is a metaphor I’m entirely comfortable with but I’m having trouble coming up with an alternative.

The Write Stuff

I’m a slow writer and I need many drafts to create something that I feel is worthwhile.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this blog for some time. I’ve explicated my writing process on several occasions, and over the years while the materials have changed (I RARELY do literal cut and paste jobs anymore), the methods certainly haven’t.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who realizes that I’m a blogger and puts two and two together. Blogging is a sphere which, of necessity, requires you to develop content quickly and efficiently. So how can a blogger be an admittedly “slow writer”?

Now let’s start here: I’m not talking George R.R. Martin slow. In fact, I think that guy ought to be ashamed of himself. My beloved did the math at one point and determined that Martin produces something like 250 viable words a day. WHAT? If I wrote that slowly, they would boot me from my program and make me wear a sign of shame around my neck to tell the world that I was an embarrassment to the ivory tower and writers everywhere. When I say “slow”, I mean more that I need many many drafts to forge and re-forge a piece of academic writing in order to temper it and make it stronger. I’m up to something ridiculous like fifteen drafts of one piece I’m working on right now (don’t worry, I’m about to hit the “send” button on that one, so before you get lecturey about over-drafting just stop and take stock of the fact that I’ve been working on it for a year and a half now because it’s been interspersed with other projects).

Academic writing is completely different from any other style of writing. When I blog, for example, I generally require one hour from inception to publication of a post. This includes

This morning's drafting session

This morning’s drafting session

research. When I write creatively, I produce a preliminary draft of content very quickly and go back over it a few times before I feel like others can lay eyes on it (more like three drafts than ten). I can produce 2,500 words of first draft creative fiction in about an hour. More disposable content, like facebook and twitter updates, are just banged out in about point five seconds.

Each of these styles of writing is important to one’s development as a writer. I believe that writing is an under-appreciated and under-developed aspect of the academic work. While we’re expected to generate writing at pivotal points in our career, there’s very little support (unless you create it yourself) for exercising and bettering your writing. So many academics hold their writing process to close to the chest that it’s often difficult to trouble-shoot your own process. I have taken to asking mentors and peers, at conferences or other socially appropriate forums, what their writing process is like just to get new ideas about things I could do better. I’ve learned a few tricks (some of them more palatable than others; there is no way in any universe that I’ll be waking up at 6AM to fit in three hours of just writing before I go about the rest of my day but I’m glad that it works for some people), and I’ve mostly learned this: everyone’s process is different. Much like a workout regime, some basic rules apply universally: repetition is a must, sustainability is key, and knowing when to push yourself and/or rest will help you be more productive in the long run. Other than that, just do it. Find whatever works for you, and get going. Do it today, do it tomorrow, do it the day after. Keep writing; the only way to fail here is by inaction.

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is that once I get to the drafting stage, I can roll home without much problem. Drafting time is my favorite point in the writing process. This is the point where I get to take my colored pens and hone my work until it’s shiny and better than it was before. There’s something so satisfying about the instant gratification of taking a piece of writing and making it be better. There’s also an immediate visual cue that red-penning a page gives you; “LOOK HOW MUCH I CHANGED! THIS IS HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS NOW!” In a field that functions so basically on intangible items, this kind of tangible and visible change is a welcome breathe of fresh air and something that I, kinesthetic learner that I am, desperately need to feel satisfied.

Also, when I draft, I can take my work for walks. It keeps me focused to have a stack of papers in front of me and no internet to distract. I take my draft, go to a local coffee shop, buy a cuppa, and stay until I’m done. This breaks my work up into logical and manageable chunks and keeps me from mid-day burnout. Sometimes even a little sunshine and fresh air (on my way to/from wherever I’m going for the day, for example) can help to give me a little boost when I need it most.

So keep on keeping on, brave writers! Venture boldly forth and practice, practice, practice.

Alright, Let’s Play

With Shakespeare’s birthday celebrations right around the corner (the known world tends to celebrate on April 23rd though we can only guess at the precise date; this year Shakespeare turns 450!), it’s natural to find a resurgence of Shakespeare-related ephemera on the internet.  This year, a friend of mine unearthed the following buzzfeed article which, in the proud tradition of internet take-downs (and, since I’m a professional paladin of the Bard), I’m going to take a moment to address.

The article’s author, Krystie Lee Yandoll, relates her traumatic childhood experiences with Shakespeare which lead to her adult disdain for the playwright.  Well, Krystie, let’s get real for a few minutes.

I can understand hating Hamlet in sixth grade and, in fact, I wonder at the wisdom of the teacher who presented it to you at that young tender age.  While I have every firm belief in the intellectual capacity of kids, with very few exceptions forced middle school readings of Shakespeare can be nothing but a horrible memory.  I apologize on behalf of Shakespeare professionals everywhere that this was your first experience with the Bard.

But your continued adherence to a blind hatred is nothing less than juvenile.  You go on to explain why reading Taming of the Shrew in high school didn’t appeal to you.  You say, “sure, it’s reflective of the time period it was written in — racial, gender, and sexual equality hadn’t yet reached 16th century England — but that doesn’t make me any more inclined to relish in what I interpret to be Shakespeare’s inherent sexism. If I don’t like reading modern stories and authors that perpetuate sexist ideals about gender, love, and marriage, why should I make an exception for Shakespeare?”  First of all, let’s get something straight; you cannot project your contemporary feminist ideals anachronistically onto a playwright whose worldview had no place for them.  You concede this, but continue on to violate your own conceit.  Stick to your preliminary guns on this one; your first instinct is the right one.

Second, who says that Taming of the Shrew perpetuates sexist ideals?  I would argue that that play portrays men as nothing less than cruel inhuman monsters.  Petruchio is the worst conception of a man when first we meet him and grows only slightly better by the end of the play.  Your determination to hate everything about this has blinded you to the facts: instead of looking at the spark notes, you should have read deeper.  Alright, perhaps you weren’t capable of this in high school, but you’re an adult now.  You can go underneath the text to project different theoretical lenses onto a piece and use your critical thinking skills to uncover readings that were previously not available to you.  But you didn’t do that; and by not doing that, you continue to spout a narrow point of view on the matter which isn’t flattering to your mental capacities.  Unpacking this information to satisfy your modern bias could lead to something more; don’t just give up and cry that this is horrible.

You continue on to claim: “The dominant narrative is, more often than not, determined by society’s elite. I’d rather not put an old, rich, white man from regal Britain and his antiquated ideologies about society on a pedestal.”

There’s a couple problems with this statement.  First and foremost: Shakespeare was neither old nor rich at the time he began his career.  Though he eventually became both (… “old” is still debatable since he died at the age of 52), you can’t project the future onto the past.

Secondly, you’re completely ignoring the history of Shakespeare in the United States (and, for that matter, England).  Shakespeare has always been a people’s playwright; from the groundlings who saw the shows during the seventeenth century, through to the groundlings who see them today.  Nineteenth century America was essentially a hotbed of popular culture Shakespeare.  He was a staple in vaudeville, hugely popular amongst minstrel acts, and stories run rampant about cowboys reciting Macbeth and forty niners walking hours to get to a play at night.  It wasn’t society’s elite that made Shakespeare into The Bard; it was common man (especially here in America).

Third, I wouldn’t say that there’s anything antiquated about Shakespeare “ideologies about society”; we still deal with tyrants (in government and our personal lives), we still deal with warring families (though perhaps not as bad as the Lear or Gloucester families), we still deal with social norms about marriage (when was the last time you saw a debate online about same-sex marriage?  And when was the last time you saw a progressively-cast version of Midsummer?)  Take a closer look and come back to argue when you have some hard evidence.  I’ll be happy to entertain your notions when you actually know what you’re talking about.

You reveal that “every time someone brings up Macbeth or The Tempest, I feel like I have a knot in my stomach because all I ever wanted in the world is to be taken seriously as a writer and lover of literature, and I never thought that could happen if I admitted to my disdain for Shakespeare.”  Frankly, it’s not your disdain for Shakespeare that makes me not take you seriously as a writer; it’s your disdain for the facts and critical thinking.  If this were a well-argued piece, I would have applauded you.  Instead, all I can see is a narrow-minded rant about why your scaring childhood experiences have prevented you from widening your focus to attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon.

You don’t have to like Shakespeare; but if you’re going to argue about him you do have to understand him.

Tweety Bird

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about social networking recently.  This has led me to believe that perhaps it’s time for a little chat about social networking… again.  You might recall my series on social networking (and if you don’t, it’s totally worth a read… and not just because I wrote it).  I’m not planning to reiterate everything I said there.  I want to talk about twitter today from a slightly more advanced perspective.  There are plenty of blogs devoted to how to set up twitter and get started; I’d like to pick up where those blogs left off.

So, you have a twitter account.  You have the twitter ap.  What the heck do you do with it now?

Think of twitter as a party.  A large, loud party where everyone is shouting at the top of their lungs and has had a little too much to drink so they’re really only half paying attention to the people around them.  Content posted on twitter is extremely ephemeral; like Dorothy says “people come and go so quickly here”.  Because of the LARGE amount of tweeters most people follow on their twitter feed, and because twitter is so quick and easy to update, content scrolls past on an extremely disposal basis.

The key to successful tweeting, then, is virality.  You’re not on twitter because you think that one tweet will change the world (unless your Lady Gaga who has 41,217,143 followers).  You’re on twitter in the hopes that someone else will retweet your content.

Say you have 208 followers (the average number of twitter followers per user, according to Craig Smith).  You tweet something; say a link to your most recent blog post.  At best, that tweet is seen by 208 people.  But, if one of your followers retweets the link, then you can double your audience with one click.  If two of your followers retweet the link, you’ve effectively tripled your audience.  You can snowball your twitter exposure by tweeting retweetable content on a regular basis.

But what’s retweetable content?  Tweet something that’s provocative.  Tweet something that will start a conversation.  Tweet something inordinately witty.

If you’re looking to get someone’s attention, tag them in the tweet.  For instance, if I’m blogging about large theatre companies, I will often tag them in a tweet with a link to my review.  I know that they have more followers than I do and, if I can get them to retweet my link, my exposure suddenly goes through the roof.

If you’re looking for followers, you need to put some serious thought and effort into cultivating relationships.  Technology enables quick communication, but that doesn’t mean that you should stop being a human presence.  The best way to get others invested in your content is to invest in theirs; when you retweet something add a little comment of your own.  “This is great!” or “very interesting!” shows the person you’re retweeting that you A) read the content, B) enjoyed the content, and C) think it’s worth the little extra time

Instagram has encouraged me to take the kinds of pics that I would normally tweet; like this one for instance of my new desk-Will

Instagram has encouraged me to take the kinds of pics that I would normally tweet; like this one for instance of my new desk-Will

to add a personal flair.  The more you do this, the more likely the effort is to be reciprocal.

Start conversations with people.  This is most easily done through the use of hashtags.  Hashtags, for those not down with the lingo, are those hot-linked words in a tweet preceded by the “#” symbol (i.e. #Shakespeare, #Daniprose, #busyday).  Have a look at the trending hashtags (there’s a list of them on the left of your feed if you scroll down a bit) and see if you can’t get in on that conversation somehow with your content.  Hashtags are an easy way to archive your content in a place where like-minded individuals are most likely to find it.

A common question that I’m asked is “how often should I tweet?”.  The answer to this is more than once a day, for sure.  Again, remember how disposable twitter content is.  The more you tweet, the more likely it is that your content will actually be seen.  The most common argument to this is “well I simply don’t have time”.  Tweets are 150 characters; make time if you want a healthy feed.  Install the twitter ap on your smart phone and tweet while you’re standing in line for coffee.  Take pictures on your commute and tweet that.  Remember that a tweet isn’t a commitment to the content, just a commitment to an aesthetic.  If you’re wondering what you should be tweeting, check out some feeds of large organizations or famous personalities upon whom you’d like to model your web presence.  What kinds of things do they tweet?

If you’re wondering whether you’re hitting your tweeting goals, check out your feed every now and again.  Look, honestly, at the content that you post.  Is it interesting?  Is it something you enjoy reading?  Would you follow you?  If the answer is “no”, try to determine why.  Too many retweets without added commentary?  Not enough frequency?  Or is this just not the kind of person you would associate with?  Objectively examining your social networking feeds on a regular basis is a healthy practice; you need to know how you come off if you’re looking to improve your web presence!

So tweet away, tweet-verse; experiment!  Grow, prosper!  Now, gods, stand up for tweeters!

Books Don’t Keep you Warm

Here is your obligatory complaining about the weather post: on Tuesday it was warm enough for a run outside.  Today I’m going to have to shovel my driveway before I leave for class.  Because I live in New England.

I’ve spent the week looking yearningly out of windows and hoping that the words “Spring Break” would actually mean something to the weather gods.  Unfortunately for me, the weather gods are tricksy jerks and care not for a university schedule, or even the pleas of a desperate doctoral candidate looking for some small way to salvage what’s left of her sanity.

On that note, I don’t know why I’m continually surprised at the revivifying quality that exercise has on my mind.  No matter how many times I prove it to be true, I am consistently astounded by the fact that if I go for some kind of physical activity right at the point when my eyes get bloobity and I can’t really read/comprehend what’s on the page in front of me, an hour later I’m raring to go again.  This re-realization only compounds my yearning for the warmer weather; convincing myself to go outside for an hour is so much easier when “outside” is a pleasant place to be.  I do break down and move my workouts indoors during inclement weather, but even walking from my door to the gym can sometimes be a fight when it’s bitter and leaky out there.

If anyone knows anyone who has a hookup with someone who can make spring come faster here in Massachusetts, I’d be ever so grateful.  I’m plumb tired of being cold.

Dissertation work is draining, and my book fort doesn’t seem to be moving one way or another.  This is mostly due to the fact that the minute I manage to reduce my “to read”

artistic desk shot.  This doesn't really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

artistic desk shot. This doesn’t really expound the extent of the book fort, but it does look pretty.

pile to workable number, I get another dose of ILL books from the library and stack them on top again.  Despite diligently hacking away at the pile on my desk (which at one point this week was tall enough to literally bury me), I’m still surrounded by things that need to be read.

I suppose I should look at the other end for any indication of real progress: it is true that my “have read” book fort is steadily growing larger.  It has, at this point, expanded to the point of walling me into my desk.  I have to traverse an obstacle course before I can actually sit down these days.  The scary part is that I haven’t even really begun to work on the bulk of the project; I’m still just picking at the edges.  I suppose that means I’ve chosen a topic ripe for exploration, but it does leave me a wee bit nervous about just how many library books I’m going to be held accountable for before this is all over.

And that’s not even to consider the archival work ahead of me.  I’ve identified piles upon piles of things that I’ll have to sort through; but at least those items won’t follow me home.  Well, they will, but in neatly sifted digitized form so that they won’t take up any room on my floor (just on my hard drive).

And on that note, it’s time to re-launch today’s attack upon Research Mountain.  Wish me luck!

 

I Would Prefer To: Scrivener

As any crafter, home improver, or DIYer will tell you, having the right tool for the job makes the job a lot easier.

And, dear internet, I’ve been writing papers with the wrong tools for so long.

Basically I’ve had access to a sledgehammer and a machete when what I needed was a jeweler’s hammer and a surgeon’s scalpel.  Microsoft word is many things and it’s a workhorse of a program.  Basically anything you want to do you can somehow find a way to make it do.  In terms of text manipulation and the actual process of word processing, it’s got many great features (tables of contents, version control, find and replace, text manipulation capabilities, etc.), but for a research paper it’s so not the tool for the job.  At least, not the way I write.

Most writers are lateral thinkers.  You’ve definitely heard me expound upon the beauty of lateral thinking before, so I don’t feel a need to go into it here.  Basically, we (of necessity) hold many different bits of information in our mind at one time in order to forge new thoughts and ideas on the page.  What this means is you’re juggling a lot of things at once: references (both bibliographic and visual), notes, facts, timelines, inspiration, and a host of your own thoughts.  I work with a dual monitor set-up on a Mac, so I can keep a lot of windows open at once, but it’s often inconvenient to have to bounce back and forth between windows when the information I need could be gracefully compiled side-by-side in one place if I had the right interface for it.

Well, it turns out that they make the right interface for it.  It’s called Scrivener and it’s my new best friend.  While it definitely ran me a chunk of change ($45 for software is nothing to sniff at when you’re living on a grad school budget), I consider the investment worthwhile in just the last week of playing with the tool.

My best beloved turned me on to the software and introduced me to the notion.  It’s apparently something that novel-writers swear by (and I can definitely see why).  In fact, Scrivener is so awesome that they even offer a one-month trial version for folks participating in NaNoWriMo every year.  I can’t imagine writing one large project on this and then being without it; I’m absolutely certain that the good folks at Scrivener make a ton of business that way.

I was resistant at first.  It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and the Scrivener help files are long and a bit arduous to get through.  Scrivener will automatically open up to a tutorial upon your first usage after installs, and that tutorial will take you some time to get through.  Consider it an easy-access pass to the yellow brick road; a small time investment will definitely save you in the future.

I think the best feature for me is that I can see, as I go, the accumulation of what I’ve

In center, my research notes.  At right, you can see my comments; each comment is a new source.  I can auto-jump to that source by clicking in to the comment.

In center, my research notes. At right, you can see my comments; each comment is a new source. I can auto-jump to that source by clicking in to the comment.

done.  If I set up my comments correctly, I can see how many sources I’ve already compiled (and in what category so I know where I’m weak without having to dig through all of my notes).  Since I’m currently embroiled in preliminary Prospectus research, this is HUGE to what I’m doing right now.  Additionally, I can file multiple documents in one project; my notes are thus auto-sorted as I research, and I can swap back and forth between them with extreme ease.

Another feature I absolutely love is the ability to embed images in a project.  If I happen upon a broadside or picture in a reference book that I’d like to include in my notes, it’s incredibly easy to do so (I generally snap a shot with my cell phone camera, which auto-syncs to my dropbox, and then I can just drop the image into the scrivener folder and link it within the text).  I don’t have to fiddle with dimensions (as in word), or worry about text wrapping or layering.  The image is just there for me to look at when I need to see it.

Corkboard View of my current prospectus research

Corkboard View of my current prospectus research

One of the selling points for me was “corkboard view”.  Each document has a set of notes you can file alongside it, and when you drop into corkboard view the document is represented by an index card.  You can move the index cards around with drag-and-drop to visually rearrange how your material will be presented.  I can picture how wonderful this is going to be when I start drafting chapters; I can even break those chapters up into sections and drag/drop my material as I write it.  As I’ve said before, I’m a tactile learner which makes the vast amount of reading/writing/research I do extremely difficult; this kind of interface really jives with my learning style and helps to de-conceptualize my writing.

Another great feature is custom meta-data tagging.  Within each document, you can specify meta-data fields that can help with search functionality later.  Scrivener provides a robust search interface (which really means that it will search many different parameters to find the data you’re looking for).  Essentially, the more ways you label your writing, the easier it will be for you to find what you need.  I can also see this coming in handy when generating an index.  You know.  For WAY in the future when that sort of thing is a part of my life.

On the whole, Scrivener has made me excited to write.  This, as you may or may not know, is a HUGE hurdle in actually getting your work done.  Experimenting with the program’s features and finding new ways to make my life easier has made dragging myself to my desk in the morning a task rather than a chore, and if there’s anything that will make life easier it’s inspiring the impetus to work.  When I get going, I’m always fine (my work is fascinating and I love doing it), but climbing to my desk is an uphill battle.  Scrivener has made it that much easier to ascend Everest, and it’s definitely making organization a pleasure.

I would highly recommend giving this program a shot; especially if you’re struggling with keeping your dissertation material in a format that’s not overwhelming.

Blogging; And You

As I’ve kept this blog over the years, I’ve had many different reactions from my peers and mentors about my ability to remain consistent with it.

Some have expressed that it’s an odd experience to read the blog.  I’ve been told that being in the room during an event then later reading my description of the happening is a touch surreal (I can understand how this might be true).

By and large, the most common reaction that I’ve been privy to is an incredulity at my ability to keep writing and my ability to find time to devote to this project.

I will be honest, writing has almost never been a struggle.  I’m a writer.  Writers want to write.  I have, sometimes, found myself awash with a plethora of possibilities for blog content, and sometimes I have been in the blogging doldrums with nothing that I can really relate.  I’ve also been in the situation where I’m dealing with something that I would love to craft a blog post about it, but for political or personal reasons I am not able to at that given moment.  Sometimes, I’m able to shelve these ideas for later use.  More often than not, I have to consent that I will be unable to put my thoughts into writing about an issue at hand in a public forum until I have tenure and, at that point, the issue will (hopefully) be rendered moot.

Throughout my early PhD experience, writing was an important exercise for me.

One of my Dissertation Personalities; American Actor Lester Wallack.  WHAT A MUSTACHE!

One of my Dissertation Personalities; American Actor Lester Wallack. WHAT A MUSTACHE!

During coursework, you can spend a whole semester without writing a single page, then be expected to spit out at least 100 pages of pristine, intelligent, and interesting writing at the semester’s end.  This doesn’t set a very sustainable pace for the tasks ahead.

During my comps prep, writing was important because it kept me on-task, and gave me the practice of spitting out focused content in a small time window.  One of the skills which these exams test, but is extremely difficult to study for, is your ability to craft a cogent piece of writing under extreme stress and pressure.  I’ve known that, for some of my forbearers, this was the most stressful portion of the exam.  Because I’m used to creating such content blasts (thanks to my writing here), it was the least of my concerns.

Now that I’m into dissertation work, writing is more important than ever.  Unfortunately, it’s even harder than it used to be to push myself to do it.

You see, this process is a long and drawn out one.  It’s a process of thinking BIG DEEP THOUGHTS over a substantial period of time.  As such, I’m engaged in work that doesn’t necessarily leave me with cogent bits of information at the end of the day.  Blog posts require something that can be discussed in a certain space.  The things that I’m currently entrenched in are long, drawn-out battles… and not ones that I’m necessarily willing to share.  As much as I would love to live in an open-source world, Intellectual Property is a real and ever-present element of any academic’s work.  Especially an unpublished graduate student.  I really can’t let you in on my research process in detail that’s too great, which is really a pity because (trust me) it’s fascinating.

So as much as I’d love to share my triumphs and tribulations as I go along, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to stick to the abstract for the moment… and for the foreseeable future.

In terms of finding time to blog, I can’t articulate how worthwhile an exercise this is.  I’ve given you some reasons above as to why this might be.  If you’re currently writing a dissertation and NOT actually doing any writing on a weekly basis (it may sound weird to an outsider, but trust me it’s very easy to do), I can’t recommend the experience of blogging highly enough.  It helps to order your thoughts and keep you together.  It allows you to achieve small goals throughout the week, and that will create a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment your work often lacks since your large goals are a long ways off.  Blogging is a great way to give you structure (which, as we all know, is key to any work regime, especially a free-form one like dissertation work).  And, at the risk of sounding like a romantic, it’s sometimes nice to have a physical manifestation of your work and time to look back upon.

Even if you don’t choose to share your thoughts in an open public forum, you should consider a journal, or a private blog, or just somewhere to put a collection of your writing as you go through this process.  It might be worth something to you someday, and the process is definitely worth something to you right now.